Head of the Lutheran Church in Estonia, Archhbishop Urmas Viilma has called a government decision to terminate a cooperation agreement between the church and the state 'strange'.
The agreement, dating back more than 30 years, while it stopped far short of establishing a state church in Estonia, did grant an apparent preferential status to the Lutheran Church not extended to other churches in Estonia.
Interior Minister Lauri Läänemets (SDE) said of the decision that the state cannot favor one church over others, adding that a committee will be created involving the ecumenical Estonian Council of Churches (Eesti kirikute nõukogu), instead.
The Estonian Evangelical Lutheran Church, the EELK, is the largest single church in Estonia by attendants and adherents and plays a key role in Estonian culture and history, though does not hold the stated loyalty of the majority of the populace. As noted Estonia does not have a state church,* unlike many European nations.
Minister Läänemets said: "Last time, we talked with the EELK about the same issues that are being discussed at the level of the Council of Churches. I think it would be fair that the government considers all churches equally important in Estonia."
Archbishop Viilma, a comparatively visible figure, ranging from appearances in advertisements to engaging in discussions on politics, said that the EELK had been informed only by letter of the decision to wrap up the agreement and the committee.
He said: "I have also requested and desired to meet with the Minister of the Interior. It has been put forward that the Minister meet with the Council of Churches of Estonia on August 9 anyway. Since the Archbishop of EELK is also a board member of the Council of Churches, these topics can also be discussed in that way.
"For me, this is somewhat strange [however] – that bilateral issues should be discussed in the presence of other persons, for some reason. This is odd. And it is also odd given that no one has provided any explanation. In fact, the joint [EELK and government] committee has already met once during the current government's tenure."
"A joint committee meeting, chaired by Lauri Läänemets and myself, took place at the start of May. Then, a week later, we got the notification that this decision had been made. But neither the decision itself nor its arguments were presented to us," Archbishop Viilma continued.
The archbishop rejected speculation that the development related to issues surrounding a bill which would render full same-sex marriage legal in Estonia, a bill which passed its first reading earlier this week, noting that the Council of Churches had wanted to meet with the minister while this legislative process was ongoing – with August 9 proposed as the date of the first meeting.
Minister Läänemets also said the dialogue on the issue of same-sex marriage, and the wrapping up of the joint committee involving the government and the EELK, were unrelated topics.
The cooperation period pre-dates Estonia becoming an independent country.
The committee, among other things, granted clergy the right to register marriages, and also real estate disputes.
All churches were suppressed during the Soviet occupation of Estonia, though towards the end of that era there was a thawing of this repression.
The EELK is a member of the Lutheran World Federation (LWF) and the Porvoo Communion, putting it in full communion with the Church of England. Estonian Lutheran churches are located outside of Estonia itself, including in London, St. Petersburg and even in Los Angeles.
Lääne Elu: Archbishop says clergy should give up right to register marriages
Meanwhile, regional daily Lääne Elu reported that Archbishop Viilma has said that EELK clergy should forgo their right to register marriages, if the Family Law amendments which would make same-sex marriage legal, were to pass into law.
This would in effect make the issue of conducting same-sex marriages one of conscience.
The archbishop made his remarks at an EELK Lääne diocese synod.
"Clergy, concluding marriages as registrars, do so as representatives of the state," he said.
Clerics in fact have to pass a Ministry of Justice exam in order to gain this right.
Like many churches, the EELK has both liberal and conservative wings, who are hotly divided on the same-sex marriage issue.
* As set out in the Constitution thus:
§ 40. Everyone is entitled to freedom of conscience, freedom of religion and freedom of thought.
Everyone is free to belong to any church or any religious society. There is no state church.
Everyone is free to practice his or her religion, alone or in community with others, in public or in private, unless this is detrimental to public order, public health or public morality.
Editor: Andrew Whyte, Marko Tooming